A 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel put Lewis, a Democrat, back on the ballot with a 2-1 ruling issued less than five hours after hearing arguments. The court said a full opinion would be filed later.
But after months of legal hair-splitting on exactly when Lewis became a New Jersey resident, the court seemed to indicate that issue was not the heart of the case. Instead, the court said, "the state has failed to demonstrate a compelling state interest" for leaving Lewis off the ballot.
Judges Thomas Vanaskie and Thomas Ambro, who voted to put Lewis back on the ballot, were appointed by Democrats. Judge Anthony Scirica, who dissented, is a Republican appointee.
That indicated the majority agreed with Lewis' lawyer, who said the reasons for the residency requirement were to ensure that a candidate knows the local issues and the voters know the candidate. The lawyer, William Tambussi, said neither was a problem in Lewis' case.
Mark Sheridan, a lawyer representing Burlington County Republicans who sought to keep Lewis off the ballot, said Tuesday his clients would appeal the latest ruling. He said he would have to act quickly and choose to appeal either to the entire 3rd Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither court agrees to take on most of the appeals made to it.
"I think the court absolutely got it wrong," he said. They applied the wrong standard."
Meanwhile, Lewis' lawyer said the court got it right.
"Today's decision puts this matter with the voters of the 8th Legislative District, where it rightfully belongs," Tambussi said. "We are pleased that the voters now have a meaningful choice."
Lewis is running as a Democrat in the reliably Republican district, challenging Republican Sen. Dawn Addiego.
It was Republican Gov. Chris Christie's running mate and lieutenant governor, Kid Guadagno, in her capacity as secretary of state, who ruled Lewis was in violation of a state constitution provision that requires state senators to live in the state for four years.
Since then, state courts and the U.S. District court have sided with her. The 3rd Circuit put Lewis back on the ballot for the primary in June, and restored him again Tuesday for the general election on Nov. 8.
In a case that has featured intricate legal arguments, the four-year threshold was tricky. State officials say a candidate has to live in the state from four years before the election - not the swearing-in date. For Lewis, that difference of two months may have made a difference.
The 50-year-old Lewis grew up in southern New Jersey, went to college in Texas and settled in California. In 1984, he moved from track star to celebrity when he won four gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Over the next 12 years, he collected five more golds in the Olympics. He bought homes in New Jersey in 2005 and 2007 and started coaching track at his alma mater, Willingboro High School, in 2007. But, he continued to vote in California through 2009 and registered to vote in New Jersey only this year.
Lewis was planning a news conference for Wednesday.